- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

The mysteries and beauty of the Far East can be discovered through sight, sound and hands-on activities at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian and Near Eastern Art.

The Sackler Gallery houses art, artifacts and sculpture from China, Japan, India, Iran and other Asian and Middle Eastern nations. The museum is a serene setting for the beauty of these ancient items, such as a seventh-century Buddhist cave painting or Iranian ironwork created in 2300 B.C.

Inside the gallery's second-floor classroom, however, the color, music and chatter of children are a stark contrast to the quiet atmosphere and dim, but dramatic, lighting of the gallery.

The children are gathered to take part in ImaginAsia, the Sackler's ongoing education program. The gallery offers regular ImaginAsia programs that help explain the connection between Asian art, culture and, in some cases, religion, in a way that today's youngsters can understand.

"Our objective is to educate in a way that can be fun," museum educator Li Koo says. "The children go around the gallery with an adult and a guidebook to learn about the exhibit through reading and drawing."

ImaginAsia programs are free and geared for children ages 6 to 14, Ms. Koo says. On a recent Saturday, the children were taking part in Garlands for the Gods, a program to introduce them to the museum's new exhibition, "The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes From South India."

The Chola exhibit features 60 bronze sculptures created between the ninth and 13th centuries in the southern part of India. The sculptures pay tribute to the Hindu god Shiva and other deities. Because the bronzes often were draped in garlands of flowers as a sign of honor, ImaginAsia participants on this day made garlands of decorative artificial flowers and jewels.

"We're going on a journey to the southern tip of India," Stephen Eckerd, coordinator of family programs, explained to the children. "In India, flowers were used to decorate the gods or to see people off on a journey."

ImaginAsia programs offer a chance to experience other cultures in a variety of expressions. Kathak dance classes In January will teach participants a form of dance that evolved from a meeting of Sufi dance from Islamic culture and Hindu temple dances during the 17th and 18th centuries. There also will be a program called Make Music and Dance, in which children will get a chance to play South Asian instruments and learn about the significance of music and dance in that region.

In honor of the Chinese New Year, a dancing dragon workshop will be held Feb. 1 and 2. This workshop is a crowd favorite at the gallery, Ms. Koo says. Participants will search for dragons lurking in the gallery, hear dragon tales and make dragon puppets to take home.

The gallery also offers occasional weekend storytelling, in which storytellers in native costumes tell tales from their countries.

In addition to the family programs, the gallery itself will interest many older school-age children. The idea that some of the artifacts are ancient will appeal to anyone with an interest in archaeology. That the art and artifacts are from lands far away will make the gallery a hit for any student who likes learning about geography and other cultures.

An especially interesting gallery exhibit is "Sacred Sites: Silk Road Photographs by Kenro Izu." This exhibit, which opened in conjunction with the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival last summer, features 25 works by Mr. Izu, a Japanese photographer who recently traveled to China, Tibet, Nepal and India to photograph sacred Buddhist sites. Mr. Izu traveled by yak and horse to many of the remote sites, and the photos capture the stark appeal of the stone monuments. The exhibit runs through Jan. 5.

"I sense God's presence in stones, and I am naturally drawn to them," Mr. Izu is quoted in the exhibit. "Stone is the closest to something that lasts an eternity. But stone is not forever, and everything goes back to the soil. Buddhism teaches us that nothing lasts forever."

Another entertaining spot is the museum's atrium, where an ironwork sculpture titled "Monkeys Grasp the Moon" rises several stories high. The intertwined metal is really the word "monkey" written in a number of languages. With the help of a nearby guide card, children and adults will enjoy identifying the word in languages including English, Hebrew, Lao, Italian, Persian, Urdu, Braille, Chinese, Russian, Korean and Hindi.

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